'Brave the shave', glosses over the loss.

This is a post I have started and not finished many times.  Either events have over taken the post or I can’t bear to transport myself back to the first dalliance with barbaric chemo. But on the cusp of making a decision about new treatment which will likely see me lose my hair again I feel I must revisit it and commit to paper.

I’m not going to write about all the side effects, suffice to say there were many and some still keep coming from that early treatment. It’s also impossible to unravel what was chemo related and what was menopause related. I went from not even being peri-menopausal to post menopausal overnight.

It was like throwing yourself of an oestrogen cliff.

Bone pain, mood swings, night sweats, hot flushes and all sorts of other intimate issues were thrown in the mix with cancer and its treatment. However, the mouth ulcers, bowel issues, blurred vision, chemo brain, neuropathy, hand and foot syndrome and nausea were all less psychologically complex than the hair loss. 

Nothing shouts cancer across a busy playground than a bald head.  It is the icon of cancer patients. It incites pity, cocked heads, patronising conversations, hackneyed platitudes like no other. 

Yet being bald wasn’t actually that bad.  

Going bald was a whole new ball game. All the publicity about ‘braving the shave’ for me  glosses over the loss. 

The cold cap

Rightly or wrongly I decided to try and keep my hair. I endured the cold cap on my first ever chemo back in June 2018. This in itself is an experience! You hair is sprayed all over with cold water, then imagine putting your head in thick rubber swimming hat filled with tubes like the pipes in the inside of your freezer. This is then secured in with a neoprene skull cap and attached to a generator and a water pump. The cap fills with freezing cold water which is then turned to ice on your head. The weight and constriction are intense and that’s before you add in the cold. Wowzers!

As my daughter said ‘Mummy, was it like a really bad ice cream headache?’ ‘kind of’ I managed to reply!

The wonderful nurses at my original hospital managed expectation brilliantly. They said when you think you can’t handle it any more, take a deep breath and wait another 10mins and it will be ok. I did this and it was. Because my head was so numb I stopped feeling anything except the weight of the cap. You have to have it on an hour before and an hour after so I had it on for about 4hrs. Apparently it freezes your hair follicles and stops the chemo getting to you. 

Like most series of chemo I had six three weekly cycles. i started with FEC-T. A cocktail of 4 drugs delivered individually via i/v, interspersed with the steroids, flushes and Piriton. So I only had to endure the cold cap another 5 times. I thought I’d give it a go.

Except my hair started falling out 10 days after my first cycle so it seemed a bit pointless. So a few weeks after I discovered I had cancer I had to deal with the very real reality that I was going to lose my hair. I had yet to tell all my friends and colleagues I had cancer, I hadn’t absorbed it myself. I was still fulfilling work commitments and had not told clients. 

The Gig

A few days later I had to deliver a lecture on Innovation and a facilitated workshop at the London Business School. My friends and family thought I was mad, but I’d worked on winning this piece of work for almost a year and I’d done the prep so I only had to stand up, smile and deliver. This seemed easier than uttering the words ‘I’ve just found out I have advanced breast cancer and I’m on chemotherapy’.

I’d been on chemo for 3 weeks and my blood counts were at their lowest. I was seriously immune compromised. I decided that the train and tube wasn’t going to cut it. It was bad enough being in a room with 80 people. I either cancelled (which I’ve never done) or got a taxi and got on with it. 

So the morning I had this lot in my hand I got in a cab and delivered. I had to make a last minute jacket change as the navy one exasperated the hair which was literally falling out as I moved. The session went well and I loved it. They thought I was a right diva when I left and jumped in my private car to take me home. If only they knew! 

The week before the LBS gig, I panicked that all my hair was going to be gone in days (based on the rate It was falling out and the amount I found on my pillow, in the plug hole and on the floor). 

The Wig

I needed to get a back up plan, I wasn’t ready to stand up bald in a room of 80 people. I needed to source a wig. And fast. This is not as easy as it sounds. In the NHS you need a referral, then an appointment and then they ordered something in. After a bit of phoning around I found a wonderful women about 45 mins away from me. She had no appointments, but put me on the cancellation list. She also asked me to send some photos of my hair via email. Within minutes of sending the email she called back and said she was pretty sure she had a wig in stock that would suit. Originally she’d talked about ordering 4/5 in and then me trying them and deciding. I was comfortable with this. However, she sounded very sure about the wig in stock. Sometimes you have to trust someone who specialises in something. I rang a good friend who I knew would be up for and not freaked out by the trip and would give an honest opinion.

Off we went and had an absolute ball!

It was honestly one of the most unexpectedly fun outings Cancer has gifted me. The wig was so perfect it was weird. It was my hair, but on a good day. The woman styled it and showed my how to brush it, wash and condition (I kid you not) and dry it. All things I had no clue about. Suddenly staying in to wash my hair would be a reality! 

My hair just before Chemo started
The wig (parting swapped sides, but nobody noticed!)

My wig was expensive, yet another hidden cost of cancer, but it was worth every penny. I didn’t need to wear it to the LBS, but the day I bought it I wore it for school pick up. It was a tight fit as I still had quite a lot of hair despite what had fallen out. Two mums were in on it, but apart from that no one knew. 95% of the playground didn’t know I had cancer. I got several breezy ‘nice hair cut’ ‘you look well’ comments and one Mum who has the same hairdresser said she loved the cut and had sarah done it? She touched it and said how well it sat at the back. I felt sick inside, dreading it coming off as she touched it, cringing as I lied about my cut! We laugh about this day now. The best thing about it was both my son and my daughter didn’t even notice. When I took it off a home they were gob smacked, but also my daughter was relieved as she was most worried about a ‘bald mummy’ picking her up from school. The thought of the hair loss bothered her a lot, she still goes on about it now. 

I am now on the cusp of having yet another change of treatment as my disease has progressed again.  Finally the scans and oncologists opinions agree with my own experience of the growing tumours in my axilla and the ever growing skin and chest wall metastasis that I have to look at in the mirror and deal with the chronic pain of. Despite what is in plain sight they don’t  show up on an ultra sound or CT scan. Finally I’ve been referred to stage 2 of the trial and am hoping I’ll pass eligibility and they’ll give me immunotherapy. I’ve been campaigning for it for over 12 months and have had the placebo/control in the last 2 trials so this has to be 3rd time lucky. Surely. 

The thing is immunotherapy might not even work but the good thing (I think) is I get it with another chemo agent called Eribulin. This will be my 8th chemo agent and my fourth series of chemo treatment. I remember when they first told me I had cancer and I’d have 18 weeks of chemo, nowadays I get worried when I’m not on it or it options are limited, which they are.

This chemo is likely to cause complete hair loss again. I’ve had hair thinning with the last two, but not complete loss. Yes I have a great wig, but I’m still not relishing the thought of the cold cap or losing all my hair again. That’s why I thought I’d finish this post.

People who ‘brave the shave’ for charity do not go through the almost mourning period of losing every hair on their body. They get the end result not the tough journey to get there. It’s not just the hair on your head either.  I never knew how much I liked and needed my eyebrows and lashes. Aside from the fact that they frame your face and eyes, they also stop sweat running in your eyes or flies sticking on you eyeballs. The hair up my nose also stops pollen going right up it and warms and filters the air we breath in. This combined with no mucus makes your nasal passages very uncomfortable. Never take body hair or lubrications for granted! 

Braving the Shave

Eventually at the end of August 2018 I could not deal with the patchy hair anymore.  I have worn a hat or head scarf for most of the summer (wig was just too hot for the summer of 2018) with little bits of hair coming out the bottom.  So it looked like I had hair.  The bald patch in the middle was hidden from view.  It was however always waiting for me when I got home, when I cleaned my teeth before bed and again in the morning.  Time to take charge, the hair had to go.  My husband shaved it off and it was massively liberating.  Should have done it earlier.  I still wore my wig for most of Autumn.  

Wig, bald, scarves & regrowth

undefinedundefinedundefinedundefinedundefined

Look good, feel better

In the middle of Autumn I did a course with a small, but important charity called ‘Look good feel better’, they give you a bag of cosmetics and a 2-3hr session on painting on eyebrows, putting some colour in your cheeks and a bit of a spring in your step.  It was fab.  The BBC happened to be filming the day I had my session and most participants weren’t keen to be on film.  I said yes as I thought the charity was good and it might help funding. Plus once you’ve had a boob off and half the county gawping at and touching your chest, you get a bit blasé about these things.   A few others said yes too and they made the film below that was on the BBC news.  In fact it got slightly more coverage than I had anticipated.  I was unlucky enough to be the mug shot on the front of the clip, double chin and all.  As I have since discovered that it is all over twitter and all the staff at my local hospital had it on their newsletter so I thought i’d include it here too.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-england-berkshire-45983972/cancer-treatment-patients-get-beauty-workshops

Click link above not film

A slightly longer post than anticipated, but hopefully you get a bit of perspective on the highs and lows of hair loss.

Let’s hope I keep my hair on for this next lot of treatment.

15th January 2020

What does ‘stable’ really mean?

Heavy duty adult training wheels 18 stone

Yesterday I finally got my CT results from 3 weeks ago.  They are stable. But what does that actually mean? I don’t know how to feel about that word. It doesn’t excite or sadden me. It’s neutral. I feel like I’m in a holding circle outside Heathrow, not able to land or fly off. 

‘Stable’ definitely doesn’t ooze positivity. A political situation in a far off land that becomes ‘stable’ doesn’t have you rushing to book your next holiday there. Stable pension funds or economies are safer, but not a cause for celebration or a spend up. Riding a bike with stabilisers is an interim phase between falling off and riding properly.

I guess I’d rather not be falling off. 

Pretty much every appointment I’ve had in the last 20 months has been bad news or unfolding bad news or seemingly positive news that belied my clinical representation or turned out to be bad news due to a scanning error. 

Let’s just say I brace myself for bad news. I prepare for it, I seek to interrogate and understand it. I then accept it and move on to forming or executing the next plan of attack. I’m a problem solver by nature and profession. I’m an action junkie. I don’t know how to be around stable? I’m not organising a party and I’m not researching alternatives  or mobilising the NHS. It feels indifferent and passive and I don’t like it! 

My RECIST (response evaluation criteria in solid tumours) report shows a 1mm reduction in the size of my target lesion (the largest lymph node in my contralateral axilla). On 12th Sept scan it measured 19mm and on 19th Nov it measures 18mm. It’s going in the right direction, not enough for partial response (PR) to be classified, but not enough for progressive disease (PD) either. But here is the rub. That same 12 Sept scan was originally measured and reported by my previous hospital and the lymph node in question was reported as 16mm. 

Same raw data, different reporter. 

So based on the original report I have a 2mm growth.  In addition the same node was reported twice in the summer as being complete response to treatment (CR) and it measured 0mm! Yet I could still feel it and it felt like it was growing (and it was). See why I don’t trust scans! 

Now let’s go back to clinical evidence – or in lay terms – eyes and fingers. The lymph node in question feels smaller than it was when I started this second trial (that’s good right?), but it also feels like it has coalesced with the other enlarged lymph nodes to form a skinnier (technical term) yet longer mass.  So what are they actually measuring? 

On top of all of this my skin metastasises are growing. I have 3 reasonably significant ones and two tiny ones that I expect no one will acknowledge, but I know they feel exactly how the others did at the start. The biggest skin met has been biopsied and is definitely triple negative breast cancer cells. And yet I had a private ultrasound of my chest wall last week and the monographer said ‘there is nothing there’! I had to stop the sonographer and say I presume you mean on the scan as you can plainly see and feel them on my chest!  Of course that’s what she meant, but it made me feel like I was making it up! Even my 7 year old says ‘Mummy is that another cancer lump?’ And ‘that one is getting bigger isn’t it Mummy?’ How do I deal with ‘stable’ in this context? Even my daughter wants to know when I will switch to a treatment that actually works! 

She doesn’t get ‘stable’ either. 

A loved one in intensive care who is reported as stable doesn’t fill you with joy. You take a breath, you might be relieved, but you aren’t out of the woods. I guess a terminal cancer patient is never ‘out of the woods’, so maybe ‘stable’ is as good as it gets. I’m restless, I’m impatient, I get it.

In my case ‘stable’ is pretty hopeful. Dying’s on hold for a bit longer. Christmas can be ‘stable’ not disrupted by new treatment or adverse reactions. 

It’s still too passive for me. But I think that’s my nature. I perhaps need to turn off my ‘high alert’ button and give my para sympathetic system a rest over Christmas. Changing treatment over the festive period is never ideal (I did that last Christmas), so perhaps I need to take that very deep breath and try and ignore my sixth sense for another cycle of this wretched chemo. 

Right time to start taking those horse tablets. 

11th December 2019

The Path Beyond the Haze

I’ve been a little quiet in the last few weeks. There’s been a lot going on in and outside my head. I’ve not known where to start and didn’t want to be trite.

It’s not appropriate to discuss it in detail here, but we have been having a long term battle with systems that support our children to understand themselves, be understood and reach their potential. This has been a focus long before my cancer diagnosis, but it just got a whole lot more urgent due to me feeling like time was running out to fight their corner. Let’s just say it was on my bucket list to get done.

One day I hope my kids will see that using my energy and our money for their diagnoses will have more longevity and impact than a trip to Disney. I am determined that they are aware of their emotional and practical needs, how to ask for help and support to create and take opportunities in life.

My mum was always there for me (and still is), she put me before herself or others on so many occasions. Sometimes this was intense and difficult for me and other people in our life, but above all I have had the privilege and knowledge that I am loved immensely and unconditionally. I want my children to know that too. Like my mum I want to help them in practical ways, but also to help them know themselves and be proud of who they are. I hope they have already felt that, and will remember it fondly with gratitude. I might not be there, so I want all the people around them to do their best to nurture and support them to be strong individuals.

Actually they already are strong individuals, but I want my diagnosis to make them both aware of their vulnerabilities and the power of resilience. I continue to believe that my attitude to cancer’s challenges will hopefully give them values and lessons that will endure long after I’m gone. I’ve also always believed that it takes a whole village to bring up a child and we need this now more than ever.

It’s one of the many reasons I am open about my journey. My broad and varied support team are as invaluable to us now as I hope they will be if and when I’m gone.

This post is taking a surprisingly sentimental direction.

I’m anxious about my CT results.

I’m waiting in clinic to see an oncologist. The path forward is a bit hazy at the moment. I don’t mind tough terrain, I just want to know the plan. I’m hoping with equal parts that the current chemo is not working and is working. If the latter, I stay on my current regime. The former continues the fight for immunotherapy or any treatment that slows the spread.

I’ve waited 3 weeks for these results and it’s been two months since my last scan results. A lot can change in that time.

Where am I now?

I’m now on the last day of Cycle 3 of Capecitabine. I’ve been on the oral tablets 14 days on and 7 off for 9 weeks. With multiple anti-sickness tabs and a strong routine around food, I’ve managed to keep them down. The other side effects are pretty grim. The skin on my hands and feet is red raw and swollen, peeling in places and inflamed.

My fine motor skills are being challenged as my finger prints are smoothed out and the fingertips are bolbus. This is further exasperated by lymphoedema on my right arm and a suspected DVT. My iPhone doesn’t recognise my fingers and even hitting the right keys and letters is a challenge. My feet are sore after walking or standing for too long and they are burning hot.

I’m not letting any of this stop me walking or typing, but it makes it more tiring. I’m annoyed with my failing body. In fact what I am annoyed with is the chemo is effecting me adversely, yet it doesn’t appear to be working.

I wrote in a previous poem that I’m happy to poison myself in the now to see more future. With each chemo that fails this journey seems more futile and the path ahead less clear.

10th December 2019

A Bitter Pill (or 10)

There is no doubt that mentally it’s tougher to physically swallow chemotherapy. Not least when you were hoping to avoid it and try immunotherapy.

Breakfast in bed never looked so appealing.

The last 3 weeks have been a blur. I’m hoping I’m through the worst. This post has been written a bit intermittently. 

Most of you know by now that I was on the placebo in the last clinical trial. After a bit of a scramble, I was lucky enough to get on another clinical trial. The last place globally, with a chance of getting Atezolizumab. 

Unfortunately I got the control, so as you know I’m not on immunotherapy I’m on chemo again. I’m so over chemo.

Passage produced the first weekend of the new chemo, Capecitabine:

I am now dictating this in the dark with my sunglasses on because I’ve been in bed since Saturday night, it’s now Monday morning and I have been pretty sick since Sat. This is my seventh type of chemo drug and my third block of chemo cycles. Naïvely I thought that this oral chemo would be convenient and fit around my life.

Oh how I was wrong.

I feel more unwell than when on any of the other chemos. When you sit and think about it, or lie in my case, the chemo pills are going down my throat and into my stomach and through my intestines, which is a lot of surface area for a cytotoxic drug to be in contact with. I can only assume that this is why I feel so ill.

It may also be the dosage which they may alter, but for now I am still trying to swallow 10 bitter chemo pills a day. I can just about handle swallowing them, but once they have melted or partially melted in my stomach, bringing them back up again is one of the most unpleasant things I have had to endure.

I cannot really put into words the feeling of that acidic liquid burning my throat on the way out.

I really thought the first lot of chemo I had back in June 2018 was the worst (which is why I have yet to write about it properly), but this seems to have really knocked me for six.

As truly revolting as the vomiting is, the headache which feels like my head is permanently in a vice and the photo sensitivity are debilitating. I’ve been lying in a dark room since Saturday night. Unable to read, watch TV or talk too much.

I am unsure whether my body‘s reaction to this is just a chemical one or if I am psychologically rejecting the control; the injustice and all-round bad luck in missing out on Atezolizumab again.

Dictated notes from the first lot of Capecitabine.

I am determined to blaze through this drug in the hope that it is doing to the cancer what it is doing to me. The week before last I ended up back in the hospital in London because the vomiting wouldn’t stop. After some monitoring and a lot of hanging around, I was sent home with additional anti-sickness drugs (or ‘Auntie Soonest’ as my dictation wrote the first time. I quite like that, she sounds like just the kind of person I need right now!).

It is slightly surreal waiting in this Cancer Assessment Unit looking through the pouring rain at the twinkling lights of the city. The streets below packed with the aftermath of ‘Extinction Rebellion’ and the state opening of parliament. Looking out at these two different fights and the enormity of their meaning make me and my plight feel insignificant. I like that. Big cities, vast skies and coastal vistas all make me feel small. They calm me.

After the first lot of sickness I was given 48 hour respite from the chemo to then begin again. 

Once I started up the chemo tablets again it didn’t seem quite as bad; then three days later it started. I had the headache, I was dizzy I couldn’t really talk I couldn’t read or watch TV. Once again I am dictating this into my phone in the dark.

Chemo is a bit like childbirth. No one really tells you what is is actually like and everyone’s experience is different anyway. Universally it’s pretty horrendous going through it, but the potential reward is worth it. Moreover the end result seems to wipe your memory of the enormity of the process of getting there. However, unlike the birth of both my children I was not rewarded at the end of the last two gruelling journeys.  That has certainly been my experience thus far. All that pain and horror for nothing.

Actually not nothing: disease progression.

I am left wondering if this particular chemo is so bad because unlike the others it’s really doing the job. That is all I can grip onto as I endeavour to endure another day.

Cancer is truly an evil bastard. Its treatment is something else. It is impossible to fathom the paradox of feeling relatively well when you are off treatment, with tumours growing everywhere, versus being on treatment and being debilitated.

Mummy I preferred it when you just had cancer, you were ok then, I think the chemotherapy is making you ill, can we go back to you just having cancer?

As my daughter said, right back at the beginning of the first lot of chemo. She was six then.

That’s how I feel right now.  This is why people stop treatment. At the moment I am wobbling my way along a tightrope between tolerable drug toxicity and drug efficacy.

My daughter is seven now. She has an amazing ability to cut through the crap and describe the heart of the situation. For example, when we finished chemotherapy the first time I went on to have three operations, each one hoping to get a clear margin around the cancer. Each one failing in its mission. As I got the last pathology report back in early December 2018, I was truly devastated to discover that there were still cancer cells in the margins. Teeny tiny bits of cancer in my blood and lymph vessels. I knew these where tributaries of two crucial fluid systems that move stuff around my body. This did not sound like a good place for cancer cells to hang out, however ‘microscopic’ they were. My surgeon told me I would probably have to have adjuvant chemo (after surgery) as well as the 18 weeks of neo adjuvant I had endured before surgery. 

This was the first moment I lost it in front of a consultant. My head crashed down on the other side of his enormous oak desk.

Bang!

“F**k!“ I screamed.

When we tried to explain this to the children, my daughter’s reaction was:

So mummy instead of being nearly at the end, we are actually right back at the beginning.

She nailed it then too.

It seems that killing cancer has to happen in a way that makes it feel like it’s killing you first.  Chemotherapy is what you call a systemic treatment. It is undiscriminating, attacking my whole body because the harsh reality is nobody knows where those microscopic cancer cells are hiding now.

So long story short, the same thing happened when I restarted the Cape (as it is known to its friends(!!)).This time I decided not to go to A&E. I took my pulse, temp and BP at home and they were all OK (that’s the first 2-3hrs of being in A&E covered). I didn’t have an infection. I was massively dehydrated and exhausted from vomiting. We phoned the hospital hotline again and said we were stopping the drugs in order to get some fluids back into me. We did and within a few hours I was improving. Once well enough (ish!) to travel to hospital, the oncologist came to the same conclusion as me. It was the tablets and nothing more sinister.

Whilst my reaction was a bit adverse it wasn’t unheard of.

I checked the dosing levels for my body surface area (my husband worked that calculation out) and we felt I was on a pretty high dose. Tipping into the criteria for 10 tablets by a fraction. Chemo sounds like a very precise treatment, but the truth is the dosing levels are quite a blunt tool. It’s unbelievably a bit of trial and error. Thing is, it’s me that is being experimented on. I have had to have my dose reduced on every other chemo drug due to toxicity and adverse reactions, so I guess this is where we are headed.

So after some good peer to peer discussion the oncologist and I agreed that I would give it another go at 80% of the original dose. So only 8 tablets a day now. I’d also have a break until the beginning of the next new cycle to let my body recover. This has given me a week or so to get back to myself, which aside from the cumulative cancer side effects I am now. Hence I thought I’d better get you lovely lot up to speed.

I want to give this chemo a good go because as I have said before the list of possible options for TNBC is very short. I’d be a fool to write one off at the first (few) hurdle(s).

New dose, new attitude, new drug administration regime with three lots of anti sickness tablets.

Let’s do this.

Again.

A dose of chemo reality check

Chemotherapy is barbaric. It is counter intuitive to everything we know and expect from medicine. It makes you feel poorly before it can make you feel better. Often it doesn’t make you better.  It just slowly eats away at your insides and messes with your head until your bodily functions and processes are effected. Then, in theory it starts to impact on your cancer’s ability to grow. 

That’s if you’re lucky, with Triple Negative this is often a short lived effect.  Sometimes it doesn’t work and the cancer just grows. After 18 weeks of four types of intravenous chemo last summer, mine grew. The main tumour was bigger than 96mm when it was removed. The last lot of 18 weeks chemo I had in spring/summer this year worked at first. My RECIST (Response Evaluation Criteria In Solid Tumors) was even described as ‘0mm, a complete response to treatment’. That was for about a month, until I felt it growing again. It was another couple of months before this showed up on a scan. My secondary tumour is now bigger than it was when I started the last clinical trial and it’s in other lymph nodes too, plus a local reoccurrence on my chest wall.  You can probably tell I don’t believe chemo is that effective.

You have to be dying, to want it.  Enough said.

Added to this I was always way too much of a control freak and sensible scare-dy cat to take drugs (aside from a few puffs on a spliff at Uni). Having worked for 25 years in marketing, advertising, branding and innovation consulting that’s quite an achievement and a very deliberate choice. So, it’s depressing to poison your body again and again. It is beyond comprehensibilty that the cancer continues to defy the chemo’s aggressive purpose.

It’s fair to say I’ve had a few interesting reactions to drugs in the past (pre cancer) and I’m even allergic to Red Bull. It gave me altered reality and makes me hallucinate. Even without Vodka.

So as you can imagine I’m not relishing starting my daily chemo.  

I put on my big girl pants (I think I will need them!) and I tucked into my seventh type of chemo drug last night. 

Two years ago I was ignorant about chemo. Chemo was chemo. It was a scary abstract concept that I’d seen depicted in films. It made you lose all your hair, vomit, your skin turned grey and it hollowed out your eyes. It looked grim. It wasn’t on my to do list. It definitely happened to other people. Not people I knew and not me.

And here we are. I am no chemo expert by any stretch and having looked into the ingredients and how they discovered some of them, you don’t always want to know. I’ve mentioned the mustard gas derived Cyclophosphamide before. That really messed with my eyes when it was surging my veins and my eyesight deteriorated. Others are platinum based, taxanes are derived from genus taxus which are yew trees, a tree we played under as children and were told in not uncertain terms not to touch the sticky yew berries (or glue berries as we called them). These are not ingredients you are salivating over putting in your body. That’s why for me intravenous is better. It’s a good way to detach.

This time around I’m on oral chemo. Who knew there was such a thing? It’s a tablet. Ten to be precise. Five in the morning and five at night. So ten times a day I am expected to knowingly swallow cytotoxic chemicals. So cytoxic (not that I think anything can be a little bit cytoxic) that I have to wear gloves to pop them out into a little sauce pot and then take them. I have to return the empty shells of the packet to the hospital, presumably to incinerate (or maybe because it’s a trial). Hopefully I won’t be an empty shell too, I’m not ready to be incinerated yet.

My homegrown tomatoes lovingly looked after this summer rather contrast my new daily ingredients

I thought tablets would be easier, more convenient. I’m only 10 tablets in and psychologically it’s a bit more invasive. 

Give it a week and it will be my new normal.  Or I’ll be distracted by the side effects.  

Onwards. 

11th October 2019

Seriously?

I started writing this on Tuesday morning. A lot can change in a matter of days. Emotional roller coaster feels like a hackneyed and over-used metaphor, one that doesn’t feel adequate to describe the last 48hrs. 

I want to be true to what I felt and wrote a day or so ago, so the tense might jump around in this piece – for any grammar pedants out there, you’ve had your warning. 

In the run up to being on the trial I am looking for signs of hope or good luck. Originally they were sending my eligibility and radomisation request on my birthday. That seemed like a good omen. The very fact that I got the place offered to me after it had previously been allocated, that seemed pretty serendipitous too.

I’d lost the diamond out of my 40th Birthday ring that signifies 4 decades and 4 family members. It was my birthday, the stone was missing, this didn’t seem like a great sign. However, in the dark of the theatre I found the rock lying on the floor. I had found it again, almost instantly. Surely I’d get through elligibility?

I have jumped through every hoop I have been asked to, I’ve anticipated hoops and removed them before we got to them. I’ve organised my own scans with the help of proactive and kind teams in other hospitals.  I have collected my own pathology reports from hospitals in person, scanned them and sent them to other hospitals. I have checked on the nurses screen that ECGs have actually been whizzed on internal systems.  I have been ‘on it’ in the most full on way possible – even for me.

Yet we are still waiting…
I was told I’d have the go ahead and details of which arm I’m on, on Friday…
Monday at the latest…
Yet it’s Tuesday and no news.  

I am sitting in the clinic waiting to see an oncologist for what is supposed to be Day 0 of a new clinical trial. I’m due to start tomorrow, yet I do not know if I am eligible for this trial (I’ve checked myself, but I don’t get to decide) or which arm I will get.   I feel physically sick with anxiety, hope, excitement and panic. An uneasy compound of conflicting emotions. I am emotionally and physically exhausted. 

I feel like I’m at the finish line, but there is no one here. No cheer.  No accolade. I am wondering if anyone knows I’ve sprinted this race?

So I am literally waiting to hear if I get immunotherapy. I’m in a windowless side area of a hospital lobby. Amidst the juxtaposition of hospital buzz and sedentary cancer patients (and their loved ones), standing and sitting in lines. All of us facing the screen waiting for our name, our fate and our next step.  Slowly people are called in.

My husband and I aren’t talking. Not because we are in a grump with each other, but because there is nothing to say or do until we know. Everything else is suspended in time. As a couple with young children you long for one to one time. This is not the vintage of time or location we need right now.

We are biding our time, until it’s time.

Just over an hour after our apt we are called. Not bad. 

From my research as someone at the second line treatment phase (second attempt at a drug or drug combo to control the growth and spread of a secondary cancer and/or local reoccurrence), this trial is the only way I can get immunotherapy in Europe (and possibly The World) at the moment. That is  without robbing a bank, changing the genetic make up of my tumour or bribing a lab technician in a large pharma company. 

I’ve been at this stage before for my first line treatment. I got the placebo.

This time It’s an open label trial so I will know at the start of the trial.  This is because it’s a much earlier phase trial and I’m guessing because the control is a tablet and the arm open is an intravenous Atezolizumab and a tablet of an AKT inhibitor called Ipaterstrib. Still struggling with the pronunciation of the latter. Atezolizumab is now a word my 10 year old can pronounce. I don’t believe in dumbing things down for kids.  After all, ‘immunotherapy’ isn’t much easier to say.  

As yet another aside, when I first talked about immunotherapy with the kids, at the beginning of the year, they were fascinated to hear how that worked.  My son, who fancies himself as a future zoologist said, “Mummy, but how did they find out that Emu’s could help people with cancer?”. Oh how I laughed.

I like the idea of emunotherapy. Frankly I’d try anything right now. 

BING! I’m called in to meet another new oncologist, who works with the one I saw just under three weeks ago. To my relief, I have been accepted to the trial. Phew! It literally was the last place as it has closed globally for review. We’d secured it. However they still didn’t have the go ahead to randomise me (drug lottery). So I was on, but we still didn’t know which drugs I would get. 

Adrenalin was switching on and off like a strobe light. I wasn’t sure I could take much more. I’d already experienced a kind of primeval emotional outpouring on Sunday night. A kind of release that I hadn’t really experienced since being diagnosed in May ‘18.  I was a bit freaked out by my reaction, but it was probably proportional and I felt a lot calmer the next day!

After  another blood test and another 2hr wait in a hospital chair – I was free to go. To go and wait somewhere else. My husband had taken the day off work, but we still didn’t know if I would get immunotherapy, I was provisionally booked for the next day.  

Right now I could do nothing more but go home and wait for the drug sponsor based in a different time zone to get into work and process our randomisation request. 

The way this trial works is you either get the control, or one of 8 other drug combinations.  Capecitabine (a tablet form chemo) is the control, then the other 8 combos are like a cocktail menu with Atezolizumab as the gin or vodka base and the other drugs they combine with it are mixers or other little spirits to pep up the Atezo.  I guess the drug companies aim is to see if they can give Atezo without chemo for it to be effective. What they are seeing right now is that the Atezo works in some PDL-1 positive patients when combined with a taxane based chemo called Abraxane. FDA have approved it in the USA for first line. I wouldn’t be eligible though. NiCE have yet to approve beyond expanded early access programme, due to cost and narrowness of the indications (conditions/disease areas it can be applied to).

OK, this post is starting to feel as drawn out as the real thing was and I’m not sure I can go over it again, so I’ll cut to the chase.  The oncologist called me twice that same Tuesday evening to advise of changes to the trial structure, ratios etc.  We didn’t want to wait any longer for treatment to begin again, so even at a 50/50 chance of Atezolizumab we pushed the button on the lotto machine (it is literally a computer programme).  

I got the chemo.  

8th October 2019 (finished on 10th October when I could bear to write about it again).

The meaning of a logo

Have you ever noticed that when a news item becomes a bit more serious or drawn out it gets a logo on the BBC? The global economic downturn had one, the US Elections, the referendum etc. Brexit has had several, a made up name and it even got a dictionary entry!  I’m clearly not that newsworthy, but as I am now about to enter into my 18th month of cancer treatment I thought it was time The Cancer Gap got a logo.  So here it is.

The beady eyed of you will have noticed it at the top of the search bar or on social media.

I could have asked or paid one of my design colleagues or contacts to do this, but I thought I’d ask my friend who is teaching herself design.  She loved working on something real.  Or so she told me.  She explored a few options and together we came up with this.  She even dragged her IT husband into the task.  This is just one of many examples I have of people in my community going above and beyond to help and to contribute somehow.

I thought I’d do this update now as its pretty slow getting all the eligibility scans in place for the trial protocol.  It is only when I’m through this that they can confirm that I will be put on the trial.  

Distinct marque

For those of your following previous posts, the tiny maggot sized and coloured piece of me that was extracted with a punch biopsy a week or so ago turned out to be malignant.  So that distinct shape, wasn’t scar tissue, fat necrosis or my paranoia, it was a mass of cancer cells that have grown from some microscopic cancer being left behind. This is why you always want clear margins, the bigger the better.  Mine weren’t clear. Ever. So this is not a surprise. 

I first felt the lump as a pin head (that’s when they thought I was a bit hyper vigilant or even paranoid) and now its the size of a sweetcorn kernel and is a adenocarcinoma (a cancer tumour made of glandular cells).  They’ve sliced this little tiny maggot up into slithers like a cucumber into tiny rounds and put it on slides.  They have tested it for hormone receptors.  It has none.  No targets for treatment.  So as well as being a grade 3 tumour, it has 2 out of the 3 markers it needs to be classed as ‘triple negative’.  The HER2 status (the third marker) takes another week or so and I’m sure it will be negative again.  So it is the same Triple Negative Breast Cancer.  This cancer can sometimes mutate to be HER2 positive, so we have to go through this motion.  Once my tumour has finished its little trip around the labs of the south west of the UK, it (or another piece from one of the other tumours) will be put in some formalin and flown to the US or Switzerland.  Whilst my body is pretty much grounded, little chopped off bits of me are able to travel passport and insurance free.

Invasive breast cancer is tricky.  It starts small and undetectable and then eventually the cells join up to cause a lump you can actually feel.  A lot of breast cancers are ‘ductal carcinomas in situ’ or DCIS and never become invasive.  These are more like a boiled egg still in its shell, easier to cut around and remove. Whereas invasive cancer is more like scrambled or powdered war time egg or a Jackson Pollock painting. 

A pathology slide showing different types of breast cancer
(Image from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre)

One of those little microscopic bits has grown into something that is still not traceable on a ultrasound. I even sharpie-ed up the spot beforehand.  The sonographer felt it with her hand, but the scan didn’t show it.  The PET-CT and CT scans didn’t show it either as there is so much other activity going on around this place from the surgery, scar tissue and radioactivity damage.  My surgeon said he always prefers physical examination for this kind of local reoccurrence.  

‘Once again, the grope test wins over tech then, but I guess you can’t say that’. 

My response to the surgeon.

Well, that got a little side tracked from talking about logos, but at least you are up to speed.

Tune into your intuition

If I could sign off with one thing it is this: don’t delay if you have symptoms or lumps you are not sure of.  Don’t be paranoid, but get to know your body.  You are so often the best judge of any changes or suspicious activity.  Tune into your intuition. 

I already have the mastectomy scars branding me a ‘breast cancer victim’.  However, a little lump, like a logo could be a recognisable symbol of early cancer or re-occurrence.  Its distinctive design, this time of cells, the malignant or benign deciding factor.  

Either way, for me, it is always better to know and to act.